Trekking Day One

Day one started at a barbaric 5 am when it was still dark. We were urged to leave anything not absolutely necessary for the trek in the hotel to lessen the burden on the yaks. After a hasty breakfast (most of us were too excited to eat properly) we departed on a 2 hour bus journey to the start of the trek. The last part of it consisted of a dirt track with endless hairpins leading to the Ganden monastery perched high up on the side of the valley. At first it was all shrouded in mist, so we couldn't see much, but later on the mist cleared revealing golden roofs and a warren of walkways and buildings too many to count (see photo). In its heyday (some 60 years ago) it housed 6000 monks, now around 750 live here.

Ganden is a 'live' monastery with monks going about their normal business not paying much attention to curious visitors like us. We could take pictures inside (for a small fee), though it was difficult to get the lighting right - a camera flash was too weak for the vast rooms and ambient light not sufficient. Nevertheless I managed to take a picture of lamas in real meditation, humming thier mantras, surrounded by hundreds of small yak butter lamps. The air was hot and stuffy. There were plenty of pilgrims in Ganden and most had no minibuses to bring them up here. Many brought sacks of barley as an offering. In one room a monk presided over a curious object made of golden fabric and a pile of donated money. The object turned out to be a slipper of the Dalai Lama. Many pilgrims were touching their posessions to it. We also saw how the holy scripture is produced. Wooden blocks with a page of text and drawings cut into them were stored in a vast 'library' (see photo). Depending on the needs some of them were taken off the shelf and printed manually on narrow strips of rough, brown paper (21" x 4") [see example here]. After some meditation of our own we headed for the mountains. On our way out we passed a group of monks stripping the bark from the willow timber used for the repairs of the monastery.

The sky was overcast with low cloud. We took the lower path, as there was not much point in taking the higher one hidden in the cloud. Below us was a valley of muted green with darker patches of barley fields far in the distance (see the photo at the top of this page). The going was easy and the path well defined, Ganden becoming a smaller and smaller dot behind (see photo). Sure enough, after about half an hour the first snowflakes started appearing, becoming bigger and bigger, and thicker and thicker... Snow was not to leave us till the end of the trek. Our first lunch break was amid large, soft, mushy snowflakes falling everywhere. We soldiered on into whiter and whiter mist and snow. We were hiking at about 4,500m (15,000 ft). The first symptoms of altitude sickness started affecting us. Some had a thumping headache, all had to stop from time to time to catch their breath. For others (including myself) the stomach was a problem - my breakfast was out in no time! I felt like I was falling asleep all the time and marched half-sleeping (lack of oxygen, I suppose), but when we eventually got lower and I had some dried figs and hot tea I was awake again. After some 5 hours we came across a little village - just a few huts scattered around. The locals greeted us with yak butter tea, which was very welcome (minus the yak bit) and children were immediately asking for crayons and pencils - a rare treat around here. Luckily we came well prepared, and Jenny must have had half of her rucksack full of this sought-after commodity.

We reached the camp at 4,100m (13,500 ft) in just under 6 hours from Ganden. After a day of going through mushy, snowy mud the camp with a fire was a welcome sight. Tents were being erected and hot tea was ready to greet us. Only then did we realise that our caravan consited of over 40 yaks and 16 yak drivers, cooks, etc. How did they get here unnoticed?

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